The first week of September marks not only the first anniversary of the election of the Abbott Government, but the seventy-fifth anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany. So last Wednesday could not have been a more appropriate day for the launch of a new exhibition at Old Parliament House, about the first Menzies Government 1939-1941. Menzies’ first stint as Prime Minister began when he was elected Leader of the United Australia Party after the death of Joseph Lyons, saw the outbreak of war barely four months later, carried through the 1940 election and the hung Parliament, and lasted until Menzies was deposed by his party in August 1941. Of course there are obvious resonances of the events of recent years, although the events of those “dark and hurrying days” had an heroic grandeur entirely absent from the unbearably tawdry 43rd Parliament. And I daresay that the independents who held the balance of power then, Wilson and Coles, were people of a better stamp than Windsor, Oakeshott and Slipper.
What gives the exhibition greater than usual interest is that the “Guest Curator” is none other than John Howard, who is soon to launch his own new book about the Menzies Governments. A galaxy of Liberal stars gather in the old King’s Hall – Heather Henderson (who is, of course, given pride of place), Brian Loughnane, Josh Frydenberg, Gerard Henderson, John Nethercote, Sir David Smith, a smattering of retired MPs, a couple of Cabinet Ministers, even the editor of this illustrious magazine. I am there as Minister for the Arts; my responsibilities include galleries and museums. In introducing Tony Abbott, who opens the exhibition, I point out that between them, Menzies and Howard served as Prime Minister for 30 of the last 75 years, and led the Liberal Party for 38 of the last 70 years. Australia’s two greatest Prime Ministers, by far.
With every new Senate comes, of course, a crop of new Senators, whom we scrutinize like new kids at school. In particular, we await their maiden speeches when they reveal themselves. As always, there is a variety of issues and styles. Glenn Lazarus, the Senate Leader of the Palmer United Party, whose maiden speech is marked by decency and humility, gives a moving tribute to his mother. That of my new Queensland Liberal colleague James McGrath is a paean to liberty to make the heart soar.
The maiden speeches of Labor Senators are seldom memorable; usually they consist of little more than thanks to the dodgy trade union officials whose patronage secured their preselections, garnished with ritualistic denunciations of the Coalition and a few platitudes about social justice. But the new Labor Senator from Western Australia, Joe Bullock, is a very different beast. He immediately identifies with an earlier Labor generation by paying a warm tribute to the late Brian Harradine. Far from the typical production-line party hack, Senator Bullock has a gentlemanly, even courtly manner. His voice is soft yet rich. In appearance and demeanour, he is like a Catholic priest of the old school. Perhaps, once, Labor had plenty of people like Senator Bullock, but in the contemporary Labor Party, he stands out like an exotic creature amid a cackle of hyenas.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Senate contains a diversity of characters far richer than anything to be seen in the House of Representatives. It also displays a richer variety of accents. I am struck by this when Labor’s Doug Cameron, the unreconstructed old Scottish socialist, tries to take on my colleague Mathias Cormann in question time. Dougie’s Glaswegian brogue is almost comically broad; he sounds like a minor character in a BBC police drama. Mathias, whose urbane Flemish accent is a joy to hear, replies with the magisterial authority of a theology professor at an ancient European university.
On Friday morning, I travel to Melbourne to meet with some 50 Islamic community leaders to explain to them the Government’s new counter-terrorism measures. These laws, which I plan to introduce into the Parliament later this month, are designed to protect our homeland security from the threat posed by those who return to Australia after fighting with terrorist groups, like ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria and northern Iraq. As the PM and I have repeatedly said, the laws are directed at extremism, not at any particular religion. But it is a sad fact that those who recruit young men on this self-destructive path prey upon our Muslim communities in particular. The sniggering classes have made much fun of Tony Abbott’s use of the term “Team Australia”, yet one of the imams says how proud he is to be a member of it.
On Sunday, my thoughts return to World War II when our family gathers for a luncheon to celebrate the 90th birthday of my cousin Brian Halligan. Still, happily, alert and well, he is one of the dwindling number of “the greatest generation”. When a very young man – barely more than a boy – he flew with the RAF as rear gunner in Lancasters. When he was shot down over occupied Eastern Europe, he bailed out with just seconds to spare, parachuted safely to earth and spent most of the war as a POW. He survived to have a long career as a successful and popular solicitor in Brisbane. No doubt the young men of the 1940s who put their lives on the line and lived to tell the tale, felt that their sacrifices, and those of their friends who never made it home, had made the world safe for freedom. Of course, they had. But not forever. That battle is never finished. It has to be fought anew by every generation. Just think of the horror unfolding in northern Iraq. And read James McGrath’s maiden speech.
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